On New Years’ Day, several of us loaded up a mini bus and took a tour of the Lord of the Rings locations in and near Wellington, including a visit to Weta Workshops. The title quote is from Richard Taylor, one of Weta co-founders, who AN and I refer to as the “two-live rats” guy. His Oscar acceptance speech is pretty epic. The quote here sums up how Weta approaches everything, but first we have some hobbit business.
Our first stop on the tour was back to Mt. Victoria where two different scenes were filmed: the “Shortcut… to Mushrooms!” and the flight from the black riders in the Shire. The very first scenes from Lord of the Rings were filmed in the woods here. Poor Sean Astin, who had gained 30-something pounds to play Sam, had a lot of trouble keeping up with all the running, so he’s not in all the scenes. I never noticed in the movie. As is the case with most movie-making, the scenes are spliced together from lots of different locations, but we recreated the ones we could in that spot.
Our next stop was the Miramar Peninsula and Weta Workshop. Sadly, the only part of Weta where you can take pictures is the entryway with some props set up for the purpose. Then we entered into a display area where you can see props, costumes, makeup design, and other goodies from all of the movies Weta has worked on in the last few years. There was also an informative video hosted by Richard Taylor, and I had no idea how many movies they’ve been involved in over the years.
Some of the details you learn about the level of detail that went into filming Lord of the Rings borders on insanity. For example, Denethor’s sword never appears in the film, nor was it meant to. But Weta made him one anyway, reasoning that as an actor, he needed it to feel real. The pre-production work on Lord of the Rings took about 2 years. For The Hobbit, the team had a few weeks, and they were not able to reuse anything from the Lord of the Rings because different production companies did each trilogy.
Getting to see some of the models and costume design up close was fascinating. The prosthetic pieces were particularly interesting – I didn’t realize how expensive this stuff is. The production team will spend $3000 on just an arm for a dwarf, and it can only be used for 5 days or so. And they have to have like 7 copies of everything for scale models and stunt people and so forth.
We also got to see the famous chain-link invented by Weta for production on Lord of the Rings. For the original trilogy, two guys cut out these light-weight plastic spheres and hand-strung them for the thousands of chain-mail needed for the various costumes. Both guys lost their fingerprints after two years of that and by all accounts loved every minute of it. As I said, insanity. We got to hold metal chain link and compare it to the plastic stuff – you can’t tell the difference in appearance, but the weight is totally different.
They also had half an oliphaunt model used for Return of the King. It was maybe 3-feet high and hanging on the wall. Apparently they only needed half of the model for filming, and just spliced the images together.
The final section of the workshop we visited was the robotics section. A lot of the physical effects for movies use robotic parts, especially some of the monkeys in Planet of the Apes. This allows the filmmakers to get the right expressions in situations where using the live animals is not an option.
After Weta, we hopped back in the the bus and headed out of Wellington. On the way up to Rivendell, we stopped at the Hutt River, where closeups of the fellowship were taken while they navigate the River Anduin. Well, actually just closeups of Aragorn, Boromir and Legolas were taken because the hobbits were played by scale doubles, and they got those shots overhead elsewhere. What’s interesting about this spot is how much detail went into such a small shot, which is typical for the Lord of the Rings filming. They used the Hutt River because it was close to Wellington and it isn’t a very wide river, so they could get closeups without having to take the expensive camera equipment onto a flimsy boat.
If you look at the shots in the movie though, you can see that the shots of Legolas and Aragorn match the Hutt River landscape with the cliff on the correct side. The shot of Boromir is switched, to imply that there are two cliffs. To get that shot, they ended up taking the camera onto a little boat after all for a less-than-a-second shot in the movie. But it’s important because it shows two cliffs and not just one. And that shot comes just before they get to the Falls of Rauros with their iconic guardians towering over the river, so they needed the context.
Check back tomorrow to read about my visits to Rivendell and Isengard.
Title quote: Sir Richard Taylor